If the assignment were to choose a colour characteristic of the life and works of Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), white would probably be the most obvious pick. Regardless of whether she worked for the Nazis because of true conviction or pure opportunism, she provided the totalitarian regime, which believed in the supremacy of the Aryan race, with the finest of visuals. Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), her two state-sponsored features, have become prosthetic memories of the Third Reich and painful reminders of the atrocities about to be perpetrated at that time.
It was, therefore, no surprise that in the 1970s Susan Sontag reacted bitingly to the wide success of Riefenstahl’s coffee-table books on vanishing African tribes. In fact, the mere thought of de-Nazified Riefenstahl running around native Africans was already unsettling enough to provoke consternation, if not outright indignation. Riefenstahl who had been travelling to Africa since the aftermath of the Second World War, had found a new subject to depict, one both enjoyable and financially profitable. Her nostalgic vision of Africa was indeed providing her with something of a comeback on the Western market. Yet, was it true, as Sontag was arguing in her essay Fascinating Fascism, that her lens turned the Nuba people of Southern Sudan into perfect Aryan subjects? And what did African strength and this new, ampler fortunes of the idea of the beautiful as Sontag phrased it, mean to Westerners?
Although Sontag remains a reference in writings about Riefenstahl, the famous American critic failed to acknowledge an essential shortcoming of her own argument. This argument, which was taken up two decades later by postcolonial analysts, amounted to an elitist critique of mass culture: the fascists weren’t merely those who had allied themselves to the Nazi cause but also those hordes of mindless contemporary consumers who were incapable of decoding the alleged fascist message underlying Riefenstahl’s sense of beauty. Whereas it has become widely accepted that Riefenstahl’s aesthetic contributed to the formation of our contemporary visual culture, those who argue that it is essentially fascistic forget that no form intrinsically bears any specific meaning — uses and interpretations depend on their context. Against an essentialist vision of the question we might want to recall what French historian and sociologist Benjamin Stora mused in a 2001 article published in Le Monde: Pictures give us more information on the society which looks at them than on themselves.
Looking at the photograph published here, from the series Riefenstahl took while staying in the Kordofan hills of Sudan with the Mesakin Quissayr Nuba tribe, different if not contradictory meanings might emerge. At dawn, wrestlers rest in exhaustion after a day-long competition and before returning to their village. Their bodies are covered with ash, a ritual practice both hygienic and sacred. It also constitutes an outward sign reserved to wrestlers and, during funerals, to those who had a close relation to the deceased. The use of ashes functions in its original context as a marker of difference: for Westerners today it gives the Nubas a ghost-like appearance. Whereas the strength and beauty which these images celebrate connoted for Sontag the return of an ideology based on norms and values akin to fascism, they might also be considered positive — if not disquieting — attributes of a continent still relegated to the margins of the so-called civilized world. The haunting photograph of these Nuba wrestlers might very well function as a reminder to the First World that it would be a calamitous miscalculation to take for granted that the South will remain subordinate to the North for always.